Late comeback clinches conference crown
Needing only two wins to earn a share of the Northwest Conference championship, the Linfield baseball team did one better, sweeping Pacific Lutheran University on May 1 and 2 in McMinnville to claim sole possession of the NWC title.
For the second time in three years, the Wildcats dog piled on Roy Helser Field during the final day of the regular season.
“We all realized that we had worked so hard to put ourselves in this situation, and now it was time to make it happen,” senior pitcher Garrett Dorn said. “[Coach Scott Brosius] pretty much said that we had all worked to get here, and now it was time to stand alone on that mountain.”
Sophomore Ryan Larson notched his NWC-leading ninth win of the season after dealing a complete-game, six-strikeout performance.
The Wildcats struck early in the first game, thanks to a two-run single by junior right fielder Cole Bixenman.
PLU responded in the next frame, putting up three runs with two outs. Sophomore first baseman Brock Gates lined a double down the left-field line, scoring one batter later when sophomore second baseman Corey Moore singled. Sophomore catcher Ethan Ottemiller capped off the inning with a two-run home run over the left-field wall.
After Linfield tied it up in the fourth with Bixenman’s 11th bomb of the season, the Wildcats regained the lead after senior shortstop Kelson Brown delivered an RBI double that brought in sophomore second baseman Eric Evenson the next inning.
The ’Cats extended their lead to four runs in the seventh inning, including a two-run single by sophomore outfielder Zach Boskovich.
Larson allowed one more run in the last frame but eventually retired the side to earn the victory.
Brown and Bixenman paced the Linfield offense with four combined hits and five total RBIs.
Junior shortstop Sammy Davis led the way for the Lutes with three hits.
PLU senior starter Trey Watt lasted fewer than seven innings, as the Lute ace ceded seven runs and eight hits to the ’Cats.
Game 2 saw the Wildcats pound out 11 hits for 11 runs, as Dorn gave up just one run in seven innings of work to earn the win.
Linfield’s victory gave the ’Cats an automatic playoff berth and at least a share of the NWC title.
The Wildcats scored in six of eight possible innings, including two three-run frames that significantly separated them from the Lutes.
After an Evenson RBI gave Linfield a 1-0 lead in the second inning, the Wildcats recorded three runs in the ensuing frame that was capped off by a Boskovich two-run blast. Linfield would add two more runs in the fourth and one in the fifth to gain a 7-0 advantage.
Linfield provided more insurance in the seventh inning when Bixenman belted a three-run double with two outs.
Senior first baseman Rhett Fenton ended the Linfield onslaught in the next inning with his eighth homer of the season.
“Dorn and I were able to keep the ball down in the zone and mix pitches pretty well,” Larson said. “We both got out of a few tough situations with runners on base. Also, our defense made some great plays for us, which always helps.”
Dorn said that he and Larson were able to get ahead in the count against PLU hitters, which had the Lutes guessing at what pitch was coming.
The Lutes needed four pitchers to complete the matchup, none lasting more than four innings.
In the series finale, Linfield secured sole possession of the NWC title after a five-run eighth inning gave the Wildcats the outright lead and eventually the win.
The ’Cats once again took an early lead when senior center fielder Tyson Smith homered to left field to lead off the first inning. A squeeze bunt by senior designated hitter Jared Adamson in the second inning gave Linfield a 2-0 advantage.
PLU quickly retaliated in the next frame, recording three runs on five hits to grab a 3-2 edge. Linfield, however, evened the score in the fourth thanks to Boskovich’s NWC-leading 16th home run of the season.
The Lutes struck back in the seventh inning with RBI doubles by Gates and Moore.
In the eighth, the Wildcats put pressure on the Lute pitchers, loading the bases with nobody out. PLU brought in Watt to stifle the Linfield threat, but was unable to record an out, as Fenton, Larson and senior catcher Mitch Webb each posted RBI hits. Webb’s two-run single gave the ’Cats the outright lead.
Sophomore Robert Vaughn entered in the ninth inning and struck out two of four batters to earn Linfield the NWC crown.
PLU received two RBIs from both Gates and Moore, while senior third baseman Ben Shively tallied one of his own.
Seven Wildcats contributed with RBIs in the championship-clinching game.
Linfield has to wait until May 17 for the rest of the playoff field to be announced. West Regional action will begin May 19 in McMinnville.
“We have been playing and beating playoff-caliber teams for the past three weeks, so we know we belong,” Dorn said. “It will be important for us to keep this momentum rolling into playoffs. Staying sharp for the next two weeks will be crucial.”
Sports editorGrant Lucas can be reached at email@example.com